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Originally published January 17, 2013 at 7:34 PM | Page modified January 18, 2013 at 1:05 PM

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Boeing scrambles to find fix so planes can fly

Boeing is proposing “a complete health check” on each lithium-ion battery in its grounded fleet of 787 Dreamliners, as well as procedural changes for pilots, as it holds intensive talks with Federal Aviation Administration officials in an effort to get its planes flying again soon.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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Boeing is proposing “a complete health check” on each lithium-ion battery in its grounded fleet of 787 Dreamliners, as well as procedural changes for pilots, as it holds intensive talks with Federal Aviation Administration officials in an effort to get its planes flying again soon.

But the interim fixes suggested by the company may not be enough to persuade regulators before they know the root cause of the two battery incidents that prompted Wednesday’s dramatic grounding decision, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.

Not only the 50 Dreamliners already in service with airlines around the world have been grounded — Boeing can’t even conduct test flights on the newly built planes parked outside its Everett factory.

The interim solution Boeing has offered to the FAA includes stringent one-time inspections of the lithium ion batteries on the jets, as well as detailed instructions for pilots to do preflight battery checks, said a person with knowledge of the situation.

“Boeing is proposing a way of doing a complete health check on every battery as part of a solution to get the planes back in the air,” the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It’s also proposing some measures that would hopefully allow pilots to catch error messages that might be a precursor to battery failure before a plane leaves the ground.”

However, that person and another with indirect knowledge of the negotiations said it’s unclear whether the FAA will accept such interim fixes until the underlying reason for the battery problems is known.

And as of Thursday afternoon, the first person said, “nobody has a clear answer yet.”

That leaves considerable doubt that the grounding can be resolved quickly.

Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel confirmed that the company “is engaged with the FAA” in trying to meet the stipulation in Wednesday’s emergency-airworthiness directive that “before further flight” Boeing must prove “that the batteries are safe.”

He added that the company is also discussing whether it may fly some newly completed 787s on routine pre-delivery test flights without passengers.

Finding the root cause of the two incidents is in the hands of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in the U.S. and the Japan Transport Safety Board (JTSB) in Japan.

The NTSB is leading the investigation of the incident last week at Logan airport in Boston when a battery inside a parked and empty Japan Airlines (JAL) 787 burned out.

The JTSB is trying to find out what caused a second 787 battery to overheat and spew hot chemicals into the electronics bay during an All Nippon Airways (ANA) flight in western Japan this week, prompting an emergency landing and evacuation.

One possibility under investigation, according to the two people, is that the batteries in both incidents may have come from a single bad manufacturing batch.

The batteries are made by GS Yuasa in Kyoto, Japan.

Boeing delivered the JAL plane in December. And though the ANA plane was delivered almost a year earlier, the airline confirmed Thursday that the battery that went bad had been replaced Oct. 17.

The source with indirect knowledge said the serial numbers on the two batteries were only about 30 digits apart, suggesting they may have been made around the same time.

However, investigators have as yet reached no conclusions on that.

Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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